2012 Houston Arcade Expo - Part 2

Shawn Delahunty's picture
2012 Houston Arcade Expo2012 Houston Arcade Expo Hello everyone! Welcome to Part #2 of my coverage report on The 2012 Houston Arcade Expo. (You can flip through Part #1 of my coverage here.) For this article, I'm back with details on the many amazing machines that were available at the show. I'll get to the interviews in Part #3 and Part #4 of this series. Check back soon for those. For now though, it's time to enjoy more of the eye-candy!

Pinball Mania

As I mentioned in Part One, this was definitely a pinball-dominated show. There was an amazing selection of machines, ranging from an actual "Pin Ball" machine which had no flippers, and which very much resembled the Japanes 'Pachinko' machines. Thanks to the generous efforts of collector, Dan Ferguson, there was a lovely sampling of some of the first EM (Electro-Mechanical) machines ranging from the late 1940's which featured the first user-controlled flippers, up to some of the last EM-machines made before the advent of the Digital systems.

Proto PinballProto Pinball

Early Pinball 01Early Pinball 01

Early Pinballs 02Early Pinballs 02

ElectroMechanical PinsElectroMechanical Pins

For those who aren't familiar with the development of pinball as part of American culture, there was an hour-long session by Dan Ferguson of The Lone Star Pinball Museum who presented "The History of Pinball". While there is far too much information to sum up here, suffice to say that you can think of pinball in 3 phases:

  • The pre-historic phase, wherein a marble bounced randomly down a playfield, pinging across actual steel pins (from which the game genre derives it's name), and into "Scoring Holes". Aside from dropping the ball in at the top of the board, the player had zero control of the game.
  • The EM (Electro-Mechanical) phase, during which all the "standard" pinball features came about: Flippers, plungers, drop-targets, ramps, solenoid-driven mechanics, and so forth. This started in the 1940's and lasted until the late 1970's.
  • The "Digital" phase. With the advent of microprocessors and good solid-state electronics, the electro-mechanical complexity began to be replaced. Eventually this led to all-electronic score displays, LCD panels, the DMD display (those small LED-based displays at the base of the pinball backglass), and so on.

There is something intrinsically fascinating about the older electro-mechanical machines. The complexity of their innards, with solenoids, cams, ratchets, motor-driven gearings, flappers, bells, and so forth, rivals or exceeds the intricate design of many fine mechanical clockworks. There were a tiny handful of other mechanical amusement games at the Expo as well:

Mechanical ShooterMechanical Shooter

The first 3D FPS Arena shooter!The first 3D FPS Arena shooter!

However, the lion's share of the floor space was devoted to slightly more modern tech. The vastly improved reliability of digital solid-state electronics supplanted EM machines in the late 1970's, and they've reigned supreme since. Further, the complexity and interactivity of the digitally programmed machines has led to the truly dazzling light- and sound-show which a modern pinball provides. Not to mention the scoring levels have inflated (instead of hundreds and thousands, most machines feature scores running into the BILLIONS and BILLIONS...) and the complexity of the game-play has increased phenomenally.

Pinball Alley01Pinball Alley01

Pinball Alley02Pinball Alley02

Pinball Alley03Pinball Alley03

Pinball Alley04Pinball Alley04

 Theater of Magic and Attack From Mars are two of the classic machines which I would love to have in my personal collection.Pinball Alley05: Theater of Magic and Attack From Mars are two of the classic machines which I would love to have in my personal collection.

Pinball Alley06Pinball Alley06

Pinball Alley07Pinball Alley07

 And of course I wouldn't turn down a Tron Legacy or Circus Voltaire machine either, if someone happened to drop one off...Pinball Alley08: And of course I wouldn't turn down a Tron Legacy or Circus Voltaire machine either, if someone happened to drop one off...

As you can see from the pictures, and from the grainy video I shot (YouTube link #1 and YouTube link #2), there was an amazing variety to choose from. The most interesting part of the show was watching how people of every age were playing on all the different machines. While the kids tended to gravitate to the modern ones, and more than one grey-haired guy hung about on the older EM pinballs, there were several instances in which young kids stood for some time, playing the older machines with the classic, mechanically driven, "ching-ching-ching" bell sounds that are so evocative of the word, "Pinball".

Despite their overall higher reliability, even the digital pinball machines have their problems. They are, after all, mechanical devices; ones in which a rather heavy steel ball is whacked around at a fairly good clip. Unsurprisingly, given the age of some of these machines, a few went down during the show. The staff was usually quickly at work troubleshooting and getting the machines up and running again. Here we see old-tech meeting new-tech; the iPhone acting as a flashlight:

Mr. Fixits Quxiotic Quick FixMr. Fixits Quxiotic Quick Fix

Mr. Fixits Quxiotic Quick FixinMr. Fixits Quxiotic Quick Fixin

There were a couple of pinball oddities and rarities at the show. First up, we see the "hybrid" pinball/video-game mixes. The one hybrid everyone is familiar with is Baby PacMan. But here it sat next to what I think is the most bizarrely named arcade machine I've ever encountered: Granny and the Gators by Bally-Midway.

Hybrid PinVids?  Or Hybrid VidPins?Hybrid PinVids? Or Hybrid VidPins?

Bad Hybrid / Good HybridBad Hybrid / Good Hybrid

I'd never heard of this bizarre game before. And I think I know why; the gameplay SUCKED. The video game controls were awful, so bad in fact that I could never get through the first level to the point where it would trigger the "pinball play" portion of the game.

The first rarity I spoke of is this machine: A Joust Pinball! This is a head-to-head 1 or 2 player machine, with a split playfield and a couple of spinner gates between the two halves. Here we see a fellow playing the game solo--he challenged me to a dual-player match right after this, and it was an absolutely crazy fun experience. This is one of the pinball machines that I would LOVE have. It was actually for sale, but I didn't have $5000 burning a hole in my pocket...

Head 2 Head Joust PinballHead 2 Head Joust Pinball

Closeup of Joust PinballCloseup of Joust Pinball

Another rarity will be immediately familiar to everyone, and needs no introduction or explanation:

The One, The Only, The OriginalThe One, The Only, The Original

For my part, I found about 6 pinball machines that I'd absolutely love to have. And should bags of money start dropping from the sky onto my head, I promise to go buy them all and take pictures and video for everybody to ogle. Until then though, I'll have to satisfy myself with playing the VirtualPinball and Hyperpin emulated versions. What is Hyperpin you ask? Here is an example:

Virtualized PinballVirtualized Pinball

These have started gaining popularity with the hobbyist community over the last couple of years. It allows you to play HUNDREDS of different pinball tables, without having to pay for your own personal warehouse to hold them all. Consisting of a 37-47" LCD display for the main playfield, and a 22"-27" LCD display for the backglass, and equipped with buttons and some force-feedback mechanisms, the thing is essentially a pinball physics simulator. It takes a rather hurky modern PC to handle the high resolution dual-displays without lagging and also run the physics simulation on the ball, but most of the kinks have been worked out now.

These particular machines available for free-play at the show were about 2/3-sized constructions, meant for smaller kids or tiny apartments. I've seen (and am planning to build) full-sized versions of these pinball cabinets. Having played several of the "real" pinballs, then the virtual versions, I can state categorically that the virtual emulation is somewhere between "Very Good" and "Awesome". There are a few instances when the ball-physics are slightly off, but nothing that detracts from the game. The only other downside to these virtual machines is the quality of the "playfield animations". The blinking lights and back-lit areas looked great. The problem showed up in any mechanically spinning, popping, or wiggling devices.

A good example of what I'm talking about can be seen on the Elvira pinball. There are the 2 little rubber monsters at the top of the playfield which move when you get the "Monster Bash" bonus. On the real machine, the two little rubber guys pop up and down alternately on a pair of matched solenoid coils. The effect is hilarious, as their arms and appendages wobble and jiggle crazily while they hop up and down in time with the little tune which plays when you get that particular bonus. On the virtual Hyperpin machine, it displayed 2 static sprites/photo-scans of the 2 rubber monsters, whose color and lighting didn't match the rest of the 3D-rendered playfield, and when you hit the bonus it only snapped them between 2 positions; up, and down, in a jerky staccato fashion, without even a smooth animation of their up and down motion. The effect was LAME compared to the real machine.

However, the virtual pinball machines don't break down or have parts wear out either...

To be continued....

Once more, I have to call it a night. Suffice to say that there is still much more wonderful game-related goodness to come, and I promise not to make you wait long. Next time I'll be covering the home-console games that were available, and my impromptu interview with Joe Crookham, founder and owner of Classic Arcade Works. I'll cover the hour-long talk he gave on cabinet restoration and replacement, and some photos of his amazing arcade machine reproductions and custom cabinets. As always, I thank you for reading, and look forward to reading everyone's comments.